Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 14, 2021

The Relationship between Stress and Creativity

By Ellen Buikema

Returning to the United States after more than two years of wandering through Mexico was a great joy, even in pandemic times. Living once again in a country where I had a good grasp of the language and general culture provided a relief I didn’t anticipate. I discovered that the life of a gypsy is not good for me. I needed a home base more than I knew.

Within a month of our return, my hubby discovered that he’d require back surgery to alleviate a “strangled” sciatic nerve, followed by a dental emergency for me. Next came a race to obtain the plethora of documents required by the state to be worthy of a driver’s license before my birthday, which approached with lightning speed. And, we needed to find a permanent place to live.

I couldn’t think beyond what felt like moment-to-moment emergencies. I was pretty much flailing at the end of this whirlwind.

Grasping for prose and finding nothing but critters

I turned to writing to sort myself out, plunking down in front of my PC, and attempting to focus on what to write next. Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement. A jumping spider appeared to have taken up residence on top of my workspace while I’d ignored my computer for several consecutive days.

 Another, slightly larger jumping spider scurried around the other side of my PC. We regarded each other. It pumped two front legs up and down. I blew a bit of air in the spider’s direction. It hurried away. The smaller spider on the other side of my computer repeated the stare-off and leg-pumping maneuver.

They won that round.

I left the workspace to them for a while. Besides, I was too distressed to write. Either my muse had forsaken me or I needed to do something about my stress level and find my creative flow.

Note to self: Raise moving higher on the priority list!

Meanwhile, I focused on breathing and really examined this stress roadblock. My research turned up some interesting information.

Not all stress is felt equally.

Negative stress

Negative stressors wall off your creative mind, allowing fear and stress to smite the ability to be creative.

Common effects of negative stress on mood are:

  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness

I was saddled with all six! It was time to find a way out of this quagmire.

Reaching for control

While stuck in a difficult situation, finding activities that provide control helps people cope. Everyone needs to feel some sense of control.

Finding control through creative cookery

Baking is aces for stress relief, and it provides an inexpensive reward. We can control what we make. During quarantine many people, myself included, devoted time and energy to creative cooking and/or therapy baking, like the sourdough craze.

I became adept at making vegetarian curry dishes.

Other ways to stop the stress tailspin

  1. Slow the heart rate using four-square breathing. Inhale through the nose to the count of four, hold to the count of four, exhale through the mouth to the count of four, hold to the count of four. Repeat as necessary.
  2. Get enough sleep. You know you’re not getting enough sleep if your mood is negatively affected. You may not think there is enough time in the day to get everything done, but sleep deprivation makes the brain wonky. (I've found meditation can help bridge the sleep gap.)
  3. Schedule some relaxation time. Dance, watch something fun, call a friend, book a massage, read a good book, listen to music.
  4. Learn to say "no." Or at least say, “Let me get back to you on that. It sounds intriguing.”

Beneficial stress may jump-start your creativity

Positive stress helps with:

  • Developing and transforming ideas
  • Generating alternative possibilities to solve problems
  • Executing those ideas to transform dreams into reality
  • Redirecting and focusing the mind and keep from overthinking

Three different kinds of positive stress and their connection to creativity

  1. Task-Switching Stress

Recent studies show that frequently changing gears causes a different view of a task. This rearranges the thought process, nurturing creativity, avoiding the rigid thinking that happens when you focus too long on the same thing.

Changing the subject refreshes your view, and it's a great cure for writers’ block.

2. Meaningful Stress

Two stress conditions known to nurture creativity are “on an expedition” where work is low-pressure but highly meaningful, and “on a mission” with high-pressure, high-meaning work.

When people achieve meaningful goals, they feel good and are inspired to carry on. Perception of the stress people are under determines the relationship between stress and creativity.

If you can set or follow goals that have meaning, that positive stress may help you see a novel answer.

3. Deadline Stress

Small doses of stress like multi-tasking projects or having tight deadlines, sometimes produce great ideas because they spark the brain to power through to specific goals.

Some people thrive on this one, procrastinating until there is little time left. A time-sensitive environment can force focus and wall off any distractions.

If you can’t find enough time in the day, try these suggestions from Entrepreneur.com: 5 Ways to Carve Out More Creative Time for Yourself

Now it's your turn. Which type of stress helps you in your work? Do you think that the right stress can bring out the best in us? Please share your stress tips with us down in the comments!

* * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are, The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA fantasy.

Find her at http://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Top Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

18 comments on “The Relationship between Stress and Creativity”

  1. Ellen, I love all this information on stress, and some of it explains why sometimes I'm motivated and sometimes I'm just stressed.

    But back to the spiders... I think I'd have been looking for the nearest flame-thrower to firebomb the place. And for sure the only puff of air coming out of me would have been me wheezing as I ran away like the coward I am. I can't be sharing my writing space with spiders that can stare me down and do "leg maneuvers." Who else is with me on this?

    1. Jenny, I'm so glad the info is useful.

      Flame-thrower, LOL. When we lived in New Mexico we'd find the occasional Black Widow. Now that's a scary spider. Then there are the Brown Recluse. No fun.

        1. I divide my spaces when it comes to creepy-crawly things. If they are inside, fair game in destroying their comfort zone (for the sake of my own!) Outside, I let them live and do their thing. 🙂

  2. Stress can be creativity-blocking. Unless I follow some of the suggestions you show here. Breathing, yes. Meditating every morning, yes. Walking and exercising help enormously, yes. But when "life" is just not cooperating, I know one of my best stress busters is to sit at my desk and ... WRITE. Creative little bursts of whatever comes out: true stories, fantasy, romance, poetry, all depending on a quick prompt I come up with, like "She chose to do it because..." or even an easy one like "I remember ...." Writing can be a great stress reducer.

    1. I really need to get back to meditating every day.

      I like your idea to sit and write whatever comes out. I think doing that instead of trying to continue on a current project is brilliant. Thank you!

  3. Stress blocks creativity completely - because it uses up the tiny bit of daily energy I have. I do everything you do - and more: monitoring food, meds, sleep, extracurriculars, even movement sometimes. Each day either brings some writing time or doesn't, a time with a functioning brain or not.

    I try not to stress about it - it doesn't help. I go with the flow, check to make sure one of the obvious energy-sucks isn't sneaking in on me, and takes 3-5 30 min. naps a day.

    It's what I need to do to keep moving forward. I long ago gave up worrying about it. And still manage to write.

    Think how you'd function with long-covid. That's a pretty good comparison, except I've had mine for over 30 years (ME/CFS). It just takes me a little longer, but I get there.

    As I tell people: if I can do it, almost anyone else can.

    1. Alicia, I am in awe. It takes a massive amount of personal power to move forward as you are.

      Naps are good! Good ideas pop in after naps. A TA for one of my math classes told me that she'd run into a problem that drove her to tears, cry, take a nap, and wake up with a solution.

      1. I tell (anyone who asks) that this story was vouchsafed to me in 2000, and I have been trying to do it justice ever since - and for some reason cannot conceive of giving up.

        'Write the book you want to read,' they say. What they don't say is that the developing of the skills to tell it well can take a lot of time. Back in the late 1900s (love being able to say that, hehe), I was going to be a MYSTERY writer, even have a nice little first-in-series (and half finished second) that was submitted to agents and got some requests but never found a home.

        And then a mainstream story only I can write, complete from beginning to end (except for the all-important details), fell in my lap in one piece and dared me. I love the way the first volume came out - and is now up to 50 reviews - and I love each scene AFTER I finish it - so I just keep plugging away. It just IS.

        And the naps: they ALWAYS work, even the ones where it seems I spend half an hour twitching and trying to clear my mind. It's as if everything needs to be quiet and catch up. Your TA had it perfectly.

  4. Hi Ellen!
    We are happy to have you back and to hear you are settling in. Thanks for adding previous articles on managing your flow and stress levels. It's so important for a quality life and it impacts our creativity.
    You know what else lowers stress? Hiring a Banda group to welcome you home! JK! Laughter. I meant laughter. Tee hee hee

    1. Oh, No. Not Banda! EEK.

      On the off chance you aren't familiar with Banda, it is commonly played in Mazatlan. The music is a combination of German oompah and maybe Mexican norteño. I lived near the beach and would sometimes be awakened by drunken tuba players in the wee hours of the morning.

      Here's an example of a good Banda group. In case you are curious. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CE2E5miXlQM

  5. If anyone can give great tips in stress and writing after your recent adventures, it is certainly you! I find stress so numbing to creativity- and we have all had our share over the last year or two. I appreciate all your tips and glad life is starting to settle down for you. Now about those spiders…

    1. Thank you, Miffie! Life is never dull, but all will be well. The spiders and I are at a standoff. For now.

  6. Super funny with the spiders waving hello. I haven't seen them in a while but they must be transient. Probably train hobos. So about that good stress? Not so sure how to grasp that concept except if it causes weight loss. Although I did really well on last minute cramming for almost EVERY test I've ever taken, I suppose. Is that good stress? I do write well using the Pomodoro method - 20 minute stretches with an egg timer, which I suppose can be stress related. I find freestyle writing with longer time frames (e.g 1 hour or 4 hours) will average me more word count and sometimes better quality if I just sit down and write instead of 20 minute stretches. But sometimes I get more writers block during the longer stretches. So unless I have the beats written in depth, its a toss up on adding stress into it. So far, I miss deadlines but often not by much. I just am not good with cut offs. I tell people in advance. I may or may not make that deadline but I'll try my damnedest. I like the concept of "on an expedition" or "on a mission". My brain thought of a safari trek for "expedition"-- a lazy meandering to seek out the lost city of El Dorado. Where the "mission" struck me as a Tom Cruise effort of Mission Impossible fame--a step-by-step planned effort that had one goal. Either could offer positive stress in some ways. What about the jungle animals that might attack? Or what if I forgot my Exacto knife and don't have a way to cut the rope I'm hanging from? Improvising!! I'm such a goober sometimes. I was actually singing the music to mission impossible just now. Have a great day. Lovely article.

  7. With writing every day is going to be different. So many variables!

    It makes sense that the longer time blocks are when writer's block step in more often. When I get stuck I walk away and do something else. Fresh eyes on make a big difference for me.

    About those spiders. I'm glad you enjoyed the humor!

    A larger one, may have been a wolf spider, shared the kitchen with me yesterday but seemed to have lost interest and gone elsewhere, thankfully.

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